I have been looking at the current incarnation of our beloved 49ers and thinking about how lucky we are right now. I have followed this team since the late 80s, so I have had the benefit of seeing many phenomenal players come through this organization. I have also lived through the darkness that was the early part of this century. It occurs to me that we have a number of players who could be considered the greatest to play their respective position for this franchise. Here are my thoughts on the current roster's "greatest" players.
Tight End: Vernon Davis
Competition: Brent Jones
I loved watching Brent Jones play. He had the most awkward stride of any athlete I have ever seen, yet he still managed to find the hole in the middle of the field. His catch-to-run motion was one of the best I ever saw. Perhaps I am romanticizing his career a bit, but it seems to me that he almost always caught the ball and turned up field for extra yardage. That sounds simple, but his knack for finding and exploiting coverage creases was uncanny. Yet, he isn't even in the same ballpark as Vernon Davis. Vernon Davis has a chance to be remembered as one of the top ten at his position of all time and it is no stretch to say he is the greatest Niner tight end of all time. His combination of size and speed were scary enough coming out of college, but now that he has the maturity, work ethic, and mentality to match, it must be horrifying for opposing defenses.
ILB: Patrick Willis
Competition: NaVorro Bowman, Ken Norton Jr., Dave Wilcox
I don't pretend to know much about Dave Wilcox. He is a Hall of Fame linebacker with an excellent reputation. I would love to hear from anyone who actually saw him play. Ken Norton, on the other hand, I saw plenty of; I saw him tear a tendon connecting his bicep to his elbow. I watched him massage the muscle back down his arm after it rolled up like a window shade, and I watched him tape it into place so he could get back out on the field. Norton was often compared to his father on the field. They were both known for their toughness and their knock out punch. To say Norton was stout at the point of attack is to say the guys from ZZ Top had a little facial hair. The 90s gave us plenty to be happy about in the LB corps. Norton, Lee Woodall, and Gary Plummer were some of my favorite players. Still, Norton had his limitations. He was a little stiff in coverage and he didn't have the best range sideline to sideline. Enter Patrick Willis. I actually believe most fans take Willis for granted. He doesn't have the flashy persona of a Ray Lewis and he doesn't draw attention to every play he makes, so it is easy to miss the fact that he can make EVERY play an inside linebacker should. He covers the TE 40 yards down field, runs down backs from every angle, diagnoses plays, rushes the quarterback, plays through "trash" and willingly takes on blockers for the benefit of the team. All while displaying the leadership and character you would expect from your local bishop. Really, the only competition he has ever had for best at his position for this franchise is Bowman. Bowman flashes almost identical skills and has shown he can take over a game when Willis is out. How about we just call them 1 and 1a?
OLB/Edge rusher: Aldon Smith
Competition: Charles Haley
Sure, there are other guys that have played similar roles for this franchise that I could mention, but you and I both know these are the only two in the argument. Haley was an absolute beast. Even before I understood the game of football, I could see that Haley was a cut above his opponent. He had every pass rush move in the book, but more importantly, he played like the opposing quarterback was trying to steal food off his table. He the most palpable "edge" I have ever seen. When he left for Dallas, a part of me died. Aldon isn't there yet. Honestly, he isn't even close. But for the first time since Haley we have an edge rusher who COULD be just as good if not better. As good as Julian Peterson was, and he was VERY good, I always knew he would never get to Haley's level. Haley and Aldon have one major factor in common that Peterson never had. Every down, every game, every moment, could be magic. Watching them play is and was like watching a jack-in-the-box while somebody turns the crank. You know it's going to pop. It ALWAYS pops. And when it does, you are always left smiling. Aldon's biggest obstacle seems to be himself. If he keeps himself straight, we will revisit this argument in 10 years.
RB: Frank Gore
Competition: Garrison Hearst, Ricky Watters, Roger Craig, Hugh McElhenny
Again, I am not familiar enough with McElhenny to make any argument for or against him. If anyone has a first hand account they would like to share, be my guest. I did have the pleasure to watch the other three play for most of their Niner tenures. Garrison Hearst's 96 yard overtime run against the Jets is one of my favorite plays of all time. I remember watching the game with my father and he hated the Niners, so when they gave up the lead and then had terrible field position for OT, I remember him laughing at me. Just as he was finishing his ridicule, Hearst breaks to the sidelines. Karma, Dad. Karma. Still, Hearst falls short in this discussion for one big reason: Longevity. He didn't spend his whole career here and he spent too much time on the sidelines. He was an absolute game changer when he was in. If he hadn't broken his ankle in the playoffs, we would be looking for #7 right now, but his body of work just doesn't measure up. Same with Watters. Watters was also never much of a classic running back. He was deadly in space and his ability as a receiver opened up lanes for the rest of the offense. When he left the team just wasn't the same. But, if we needed to pound the ball forward between the tackles, he was average at best. Craig was one of the most complete running backs to ever play the game. He revolutionized the position by becoming the first back to run and catch for 1,000 yards in a season. Those of you who had the pleasure of watching Craig play remember his iconic high knee running style. I loved watching linebackers fly in to wrap him up, only to be flung back by those chest tapping pistons. Simply put, it is a travesty that he isn't in the hall of fame yet. How does Gore stack up? Statistically, he is ahead of everyone on this list in yards and rushing touchdowns. In the grand scheme, Gore is the most complete running back we have ever had over the longest period of time. Gore is a terrific runner runner between the tackles, an above average pass catcher, and one of the best pass blockers you will ever see at this position. What sets him apart is his vision. No one has ever set up their blockers like him, and no one gets more out of every run. With all due respect to Roger Craig, Gore is the greatest running back to ever play for the 49ers.
What about other positions? Are there any other current Niners who are or could be the best to ever play the position for this team? Iupati? Staley? Justin Smith? Who is the greatest at each position if it is not a current player?